California Youth Unite to Upset the Setup

News & Politics
upset the setup

With one hand caressing the mic, and the other shaped into a fist, "raptivist" and emcee Rashidi Omari, of the Oakland-based hip hop group Company of Prophets, sounds loud beats over political spoken word and conscious lyrics into a heated high school auditorium.

Glance around to his audience: a motley crew of high schoolers, b-boys, breakers, feminists and lyricists, sporting dreadlocks, afros, baggy jeans, Mumia shirts and Che buttons. They are Asian, African American, Pacific Islander, Arab and Latino.

In other words, they represent California's newest – and youngest – generation of organizers.

"When I say upset," Omari spits out, arms raised in the air as he beat-boxes rhythms in between a flow of words. "You say the setup!" The crowded auditorium pumps fists with hyped energy in response.
"The setup!"
"The setup!"

Now freeze.

This month around 300 youth gathered for the fourth annual "Upset the Setup" conference in Oakland, Ca., which yearly has brought together high school age youth from across the state of California to discuss ways to organize and to stop the war on youth in their local communities.

In the tradition of – a protest concert that drew thousands of youth in the last two years against a proposed SuperJail in Alameda county – the "Upset the Setup" conference uses cultural protest and resistance through music, art, politics and hip hop to educate and empower youth in the methods of effective organizing strategies and protest.

Khadine Bennett, project director with the
Youth Force Coalition, the group that hosted the conference, explained that the conference was founded to bridge youth organizations that work on different issues and with different identities and to illustrate how the prison industrial complex intersects with all their issues.

"If you are a young queer woman of color working on environmental issues in Oakland or a Latino youth organizing against incarceration in LA, here is a place you meet and connect," Bennett said. "This conference is a space for youth organizations from all of California to realize that they are not fighting this system alone."

The conference was attended by around 50 different organizations representing a wide spectrum of the growing movement against the criminalization of youth. Many groups hosted interactive workshops educating and linking issues from the local to the global, ranging from the fight for ethnic studies in California highs school to methods of guerrilla art organizing against Bush's war on Iraq.

"If you are a young queer woman of color working on environmental issues in Oakland or a Latino youth organizing against incarceration in LA, here is a place you meet and connect," Bennett said. "This conference is a space for youth organizations from all of California to realize that they are not fighting this system alone."

Youth organizations like PUEBLO (People United for a Better Oakland) gave workshops on organizing against measure FF in the local November elections. FF is a ballot initiative that would put 100 new cops on the streets in Oakland with a hefty price tag of $67.5 million.

Californians for Justice gave a workshop on campaigning against the High School Exit Exam, a new requirement that will be applied to California's graduating class of 2004. They argue that the exam is already proven to be racist, and in schools where it has been administered, the dropout rate has increased.

Youth from the American Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee connected the struggles in Palestine to the indigenous battles in the Unites States and in South Africa. Most students left the workshop shocked by the amount of information they never knew about Middle East politics.

The Birth of a Coalition

When California began passing measures in the late 90s aimed at controlling its youth, such as zero tolerance laws, three strike laws and adult transfers, a new generation of urban high school organizers was born.

The Youth Force Coalition, a coalition of 30 social justice groups in the Bay Area, also originated in this struggle. It formed in 1998 at the Critical Resistance conference, an event that connected thousands of youth organizations from across the country working to address America's ballooning prison industrial complex.

Youth Force later coalesced around the Proposition 21 campaign in 1999. Prop 21 is what many organizers still refer to as the "War on Youth initiative"; it created tougher sentences and pushed 14-year-olds into adult courts and 16-year-olds into adult prisons. Although Prop 21 passed, it resulted in amassing one of the largest urban youth movements for social change in the area since the Black Power movement. Many youth attended their first protests, joined and formed new organizations and today continue to organize for social justice in their communities.

Crystal Tovar was only 14 when she attended her first protest, which was against Prop 21. Today she is a college organizer and attributes her consciousness to the Prop 21 campaign. "I definitely was brought into the movement by those actions," she says.

Last year Youth Force partnered up with the Oakland-based Ella Baker Center For Human Right's Book Not Bars in a campaign against the proposed SuperJail in Alameda County. The SuperJail would have been one of the largest per capita juvenile halls in the country, increasing Oakland's number of detention beds from 299 to 540. Last spring the campaign succeed in a small victory by getting the number of beds proposed down to 420, having the location moved from Dublin to two possible West Oakland sites, and cutting its budget by $2.1 million.

Organizers argue that over-incarceration of youth and juvenile detention overcrowding can be prevented by simply not putting as many youth in jail. Youth Force points out that juvenile jail overcrowding isn't due to the actions of young people, but to the inaction of adults in looking for other alternatives to "lock-em-up and throw away key way" solutions. Organizers prefer treatment and rehabilitation programs that use home surveillance and evening reporting centers.

Schools Not Jails

Because youth of color represent the majority in California's public schools at around 63 percent of the population, most activists feel that those in power are ignoring them.

Chants like "Books Not Bars", "Education not Incarceration" and "Stop the Criminalization of a Generation" make the message clear – youth are targeted and education systems are losing.

A recent study conducted by the Justice Policy Institute reports during the 1980s and 1990s state spending on correction grew at the same rate spending on higher education decreased, resulting in the fact that a third more African American men are in prison than in universities or colleges.

Statistics like this have spurred into action groups like the East Los Angeles-based Youth Organizing Communities (YOC), a Latino youth organization that works within the network of "Schools not Jails" campaigns in California to fight education injustice.

"Schools are like prisons" was the common analogy of the workshop YOC hosted at the conference.

"So many young people get tracked into prison, the military and low-wage jobs," Lester Garcia, 20, told his audience.

YOC refers to dropout rates as "disappearances," since no one knows what happens to the youth after they leave high school. In many inner city neighborhoods in California there is a 40-60 percent disappearance rate. Garcia explained how the growing prison population is directly linked to the conditions in schools and to the rise in disappearances.

Most of the youth in the workshop knew more people in jail than in college, and many could look around their schools and list the litany of problems in them – underpaid teachers, chipped paint and falling ceilings, not enough books (in the ones they have, Reagan is still listed as president), metal detectors, cameras, fences, more cops than counselors, racist tracking systems, and overcrowding. Many go to schools where on the first day they are told to look around at their classmates and note that half of the freshman class won't see graduation.

"With the cycle of taking more money from schools and putting it into prisons, the only option for many inner city kids is cheap labor, crime, hustling... the government creates the problems by not giving money to the school and then imprisons you... automatically setting you up for prison or the military," Garcia explained.

YOC is working to improve high school curriculums, underscoring that more youth would be interested in school if they had the chance to learn about themselves. They are working on campaigns across East Los Angeles to implement ethnic studies at the high school level.

"Of all the conditions at these schools, not learning about one's own history is adding to poor education," Garcia said.

Generation Hip hop Wakes

Many of the youth at the conference fit the profile of the majority of youth locked up in the nation's juvenile facilities and SuperJails – low-income youth of color. But they are also the ones stepping up to the mic and to their local governments.

California's clamorous hip hop activists, or "raptivists," continue to push the envelope and to inspire other groups. In the Bay Area alone, youth have formed dozens of new groups in the past three years to counter the damaging impact of the prison industrial complex – Critical Resistance, Youth Force, Let's Get Free, Underground Railroad, C-Beyond, SOUL and Mindzeye to name a few – all based in hip hop culture and run primarily by youth of color between the ages of 15 and 30. These youth are taking their cues from the Civil Rights Movement, holding rallies, protests, sit-ins, and door-to-door campaigning – all with a "hip hop flavor."

Many of these organizations have developed a theory of organizing that goes from the local to the global, using hip hop culture to educate, empower, politick and allow young people to address their problems in their own language and in a method that is familiar to them.

"I think it is important that young people in the movement – especially young oppressed people (working class, queer, youth of color) – come together and share work, to become stronger and more viable as a movement," said Genevieve Gonzalez, an organizer with the Oakland-based School for Unity and Liberation (SOUL).

And conferences like "Upset the Setup" allow this generation of youth to link together to see the larger connection between their struggles.

"I think [the conference] was amazing," reflects Alba Mendez, 16, a student at Downtown Business Magnet High in Los Angeles. "It's very helpful to realize what's going on and to see the problems from a different view. It's good to see people out here willing to organize us, teach us and not give us just another line."

Castlemont sophomore, Porshca Washington, 16, described how at her high school they were organizing against overcrowding. It was her first time coming to a conference like this, but it wouldn't be her last.

"This is the hip hop generation finding its political voice," Ella Baker Center for Human Rights director Van Jones told the Oakland Tribune last year. "They are working class kids of color who have already been written off by society. They're told they can't fight city hall, but they are doing it anyway."

Indeed these youth have brought a fresh voice to the debate over juvenile justice – voices rooted in low income communities of color like West Oakland and East Los Angeles. They are mostly under 21, have spent time in lock-up or have relatives or friends there.

And they come to the table, or the mic as one may see it, not just from a sense of compassion, but out of necessity and survival. As Jones put it, they organize for their lives.

Desiree Evans, 21, is a journalism student and activist always thinking up new ways to upset the setup.

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